The First of Nisan, the Forgotten Jewish New Year

-by Joel S. Davidi Weisberger

The Alexandrian pamphlet describing the Seder al-Tahwid liturgy.

It is late March and the weather is still cold. The sounds of Arabic music and exuberant conversation emanate from an elegant ballroom in Brooklyn, New York. No, it’s not a wedding or a Bar Mitzvah. A Torah Scroll is unfurled and the cantor begins to read from Exodus 12:1, “And God spoke to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, ‘This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year.’” The reading is followed by the chanting of liturgical poetry based on this Torah portion, “Rishon Hu Lakhem L’khodshei Hashanah”… Yom Nisan Mevorakh….” “The first month shall it be for you for the months of the year… the month of Nisan is blessed.” As they leave the event, men and women wish each other “Shana tova,” happy new year.

Something seems off. It is a Monday night and Rosh Hashanah, the traditional Jewish new year, is still six months away. Why the celebration and talk of a new year? This ritual is very familiar, however, to the members of Congregation Ahaba Veahva, a Synagogue that follows the Egyptian-Jewish rite. It is a vestige of a very ancient, almost extinct Jewish custom called Seder Al-Tawhid (Arabic, Seder Ha-Yikhud in Hebrew, the ritual of the unity). [Read more…]

Book Review: The Resolutionary War

As the Jewish New Year approaches, The Resolutionary War and its premise make for an interesting model to contemplate in contrast to Jewish New Year practices.

This debut novel by Sandy Chase and Violet April Ebersole involves a group of individuals intending to meet monthly in support of fulfilling personal resolutions.

Judaism advocates a process that advances healing and intimacy. This involves undertaking a fiercely honest personal inventory of our behavior and relationships across the year (heshbon hanefesh), making appointments with those we have hurt to our regret, a plan of action for how to avoid repeating negative behaviors, commitment to non-defensively support healing within the relationship (teshuvah), which is further sealed by giving charity to support healthy developments within the greater society (tzedakah).

By contrast with Jewish New Year spiritual practices, the book brilliantly reveals profound flaws in the personal resolutions model. Social workers often say that the presenting problem is rarely, if ever, the real problem. This is one of the problems with resolutions: They usually belie the necessary process and guidance to uncover the work that most deeply needs doing.

This novel will easily provoke discussion about family dynamics, because it is rife with painful, often superficial interpersonal dynamics, long-held secrets, and an almost total absence of authentic intimacy grounded in meaningful empathy between the characters. So many relationship skills are missing between these characters that one yearns to jump right in and start coaching each toward the capacity to have a “we.”

A popcorn-style of dialogue gives this debut novel a soap-opera- or graphic-novel-like sensibility. The co-authors chose this approach well, as it serves well to underscore the different social classes depicted among the families. A wide array of true-to-life tensions about life’s essential topics such as marriage, addiction, infertility and adoption give the story weight, character and energy.

The Resolutionary War gives its readers fodder for reflection upon the need to realign their own relationships during this Hebrew calendar month of Elul, which in itself is an acronym for ani l’dodi v’dodi li, “I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me.” May each and all be so blessed.

Simple Foods: Black Eyed Peas

— by Sarah Melamed

I’m hungry. Tired too. I just want to eat. All I need is a steaming bowl of soup waiting when I get home.  “Come, sit down, enjoy” it seems to say. I don’t want company, conversation or etiquette. Only me, alone… sometimes.

When the travails of the day have lifted, I search for the easy camaraderie of family, friends. At the table we share snatches of conversation between bites “You won’t believe this… And he said… and I feel…” before the clang of dirty dishes hit the sink and the urgent pull of everything else. It is another mundane weekday lunch, the pulse of our home.

In the rush that life can become, I don’t want the kitchen to be another source of stress. Yet it is precisely then I crave home-cooked foods. Instead I simplify — one pot meals, fewer ingredients, stream lined recipes — nothing too meticulous or time-consuming. Homely and homey, a panacea for fast-paced modernity.  

The full recipe after the jump.
Black Eyed Peas, Creole Style

Here is my take of creole style black eyed peas, hodgepodged together from what I had in my fridge. Curiously I rarely used this legume until now, preferring lentils as local tradition dictates. Indigenous to West Africa, black eyed peas were introduced to the southern United States in the 17th century where they quickly became the mainstay.

In Israel, black eyed peas, or lubia as they are known in Hebrew, hold important symbolic significance for the  Jewish New Year. Persians are also a big consumer of this humble bean and would probably agree with the Americans that they are the perfect “soul food”.

  • 2 carrots, finely diced
  • 2 stalks of celery (I used ½ bulb of celeriac) finely diced
  • 1 bell pepper, diced
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 100 grams tomato paste (I’d have added chopped fresh tomatoes if I had them)
  • 1 tablespoon paprika
  • 2 cups of dried black eyed peas, soaked overnight
  • Freshly ground black pepper/salt
  • ¼ teaspoon allspice
  • Small bunch parsley and coriander, chopped
  • Olive oil for sautéing

Place the black eyed peas in a bowl and cover with water. Soak overnight. The following day rinse the beans and place in a pot. (At this point the beans can be drained and stored in an airtight container in the freezer for later use.)  Cover the beans with fresh water so they are submerged with about 1-2 cm of liquid. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until the beans are soft but still hold their shape. Set aside.

Note: After a few bad experiences with the hard water in Israel I prefer to cook beans separately. If the beans never soften I can salvage the rest of the ingredients.

In a medium sized pot sautee the onions until golden brown. Keep the flame low to caramelize instead of burn.  Add the garlic and mix until the aroma is released, about 30 seconds. Add the diced vegetables (carrots, celery and pepper) and mix until combined. Add the tomato paste, spices and the beans with their cooking liquid. Cook for about 30 minutes, or until the vegetables are soft.  If the stew is watery, uncover and reduce by evaporation. Sprinkle with parsley and serve with steamed white rice.

Sarah Melamed is the creator of Food Bridge.  She lives in Israel, and loves exploring how food is a bridge that connects people to each other as they share it around a table.